Making a Living as a Documentary Filmmaker Is Harder Than Ever. Here’s Why.

Making a Living as a Documentary Filmmaker Is Harder Than Ever. Here's Why.

Billed as “the world’s most exciting documentary & digital media festival,” Sheffield Doc/Fest lives up to those unreasonably high expectations. Certainly, with a lineup featuring the latest projects from some of the biggest and best names in documentary filmmaking, lively panels about the future of nonfiction filmmaking as well as Interactive at Sheffield showcasing the most innovative projects, Sheffield Doc/Fest is full of excitement and energy.

With so much enthusiasm for nonfiction filmmaking, more affordable filmmaking tools, and a plethora of compelling content, it might arguably be the best time in the history of film to be a documentary filmmaker. But, as many of the filmmakers at Sheffield Doc/Fest have pointed out, it might be the worst time to make a sustainable career of it.

“It’s the best time ever to become a filmmaker, but one of the hardest times to make a career of filmmaking,” Marshall Curry, who is at Sheffield Doc/Fest with his latest film, “Point and Shoot,” told Indiewire. “The same things that enabled me to make my first film [the Academy Award-nominated “Street Fight”] — cheap cameras and editing software– mean that the market is flooded with good films by first-time filmmakers who don’t care if they get paid.”

READ MORE: How to Win an Oscar for Best Documentary (Or At Least Try)

Fellow Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger echoed Curry’s sentiments at his Master Class at Sheffield Doc/Fest. 

“The lesson is it’s hard to make a good living as a documentary maker just with documentaries,” said Berlinger, whose latest film, “Whitey: The United States of America v. James L. Bulger,” had its European premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest. “Even with the relative success I’ve had, I couldn’t have supported myself without advertising. Every year, I do one or three or four TV commercial projects.” 

On the upside, filmmaking is cheaper than ever. Berlinger recalled how expensive it was to shoot on film back when he was starting out two decades ago. “Today, we shoot on a card. There’s no cost for the footage. A $3,000 camera, you can do more with it than you could have dreamed of 20 years ago, non-linear editing on your laptop is amazing,” he said.

But with the lower cost comes another cost: Supply outstrips demand. “It’s much easier to make a film today than it was, but that’s the seed of the problem,” said Berlinger. “No offense, but there are too many filmmakers, too much competition, too many stories being told in order to make a living. It’s just grown exponentially and because of that networks are under pressure to cut costs, particularly because there’s a glut of filmmakers and an ease of technology. The cost of what they’ll pay has been greatly reduced.”

Of course, being a documentary filmmaker has never been an easy or lucrative trade. From early on in his filmmaking career, Doug Block realized he’d have to support his work with side jobs. Initially, he did freelance camera work including corporate videos and shooting other people’s documentaries. But when a friend inquired if he might be interested in shooting wedding videos, he jumped at the chance. “The great thing about weddings is you can set your own rate – my first wedding was three times my day rate and it went up from there,” said Block, who is at Sheffield Doc/Fest with his latest film, “112 Weddings,” which follows up on some of the couples whose weddings Block filmed to see how their marriages have fared.

The film opens in the U.K. this Friday and will premiere in the United States on HBO on June 30.

Filming weddings was the ideal gig to support his documentary filmmaking career because not only did it pay well, but it also helped him hone his craft as a documentarian. It also eventually culminated in a feature film.

“In practical terms, it was something that I could do that paid far more money than I would otherwise make and that kept me sharp and practicing my craft. I would tell the couples I am making a feature documentary about your wedding day and that’s how it was crafted,” Block told Indiewire at Sheffield Doc/Fest. “It really got me to hone the craft of shooting with the edit in mind because I was always thinking about how one shot would cut to the next.”

Block, who has been filming his own projects since 1987, agrees with Berlinger and Curry that making a livelihood out of documentary filmmaking is becoming increasingly challenging.

“I’d say that making a living based on being paid and paid decently to make a film is harder than ever. It’s easier than ever to get a low-budget film made. It’s harder than ever to sustain a career doing it,” said Block.

Despite the outliers like Academy-award winning “20 Feet from Stardom,” the theatrical business for nonfiction films is fading as audiences stay home to watch documentaries on TV and VOD platforms.

“There’s a lot of great distribution platforms online, but those distribution platforms, by and large, aren’t monetizing vehicles for filmmakers. So we have a situation where there’s a lot of filmmakers — way more than when I started by about 10,000% — all competing for the same reduced dollars. It’s a challenging environment,” said Berlinger. “On the other hand, for first-time filmmakers or people just starting their career, it truly is easier to get into the business. It’s easier to make a film than it used to be.”

But how many of those first-time filmmakers will be able to make a second film or sustain a career?

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Here’s another problem: Americans have nothing interesting to say, and are crowding the market with self-absorbed rubbish. It’s become too easy for people with no talent to make films, and you can always give them to Netflix for free in order to make your funders at least a bit less unhappy than when you told them you couldn’t find a distributor. We need higher quality, lower volume.


If you’re new to filmmaking, try this is page, it’s where you’ll find all the information and resources you need to get up-to-speed quickly, and begin your filmmaking career!


I am an independent documentary filmmaker. after a long struggle,I finally have chosen photo journalism as an alternate career option which allows me to stay in the loop. What i mean is find a job which is somehow related to your passion even if it doesn’t pay you much.The longer you survive, higher the chance is!


A 25 year career working my way up the ranks, through movies and commercials, to become a producer, and now I am working on documentaries for less money than I was making 20 years ago. There is love and then there is reality. You can’t exist on air, the reality of the modern world is that you need to earn money to eat. A very few lucky people can earn a decent amount of money making documentaries, but that is far and few between. The rest of us have to have day jobs in order to support the passion projects. And this has definitely been made worse by technology, low budgets and a plethora of film students graduating every year who will work for free. It’s a highly competitive world out there, but we stick at it cos we love it!

Dave Kinsella

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"…

Tina DiFeliciantonio

Been making mostly indie docs and some television for 30 years. Won severel National Emmy’s…Sundance Grand Jury Prize…. We indie filmmakers — non-fiction filmmakers — documentarians — whatever we call ourselves — are subject to the same macroeconomic forces as the folks who serve our fast food…as our academic brethren, etc. Lower barriers to entry, supply and demand, technological innovation, changing market forces. I have no answers, only questions. Check out the International Documentary Association’s conference this September 30 – October 2nd in LA and use your voice to the launch the Independent Documentary (sorry Michael) Task Force. If you can’t make it, check out the following month’s The Independent Magazine. We are laying the groundwork for a comprehensive quantitative study and analysis of our field. While we cannot change market forces, we can analyze and assess how they can be dealt with. Qualitative information is essential, however, follow the money — it often sheds light on the issues we grapple with in terms of sustainability, ageism, racism, gender disparity, classism, unintended exploitation, bad business practices, etc. We as a community need to look at ourselves long and hard to find ways to make excellent work that will be seen by audiences, while being responsible to our families, children, communities, fellow workers…. The list goes on. In the meantime, check out the Future of Music Coalition. They are leap years ahead of us. Onwards. Sempre avanti.

Steven-Charles Jaffe

Re: "….But how many of those first-time filmmakers will be able to make a second film or sustain a career?" In the immortal words of Dirty Harry,"Do you fell lucky…Well do ya?"


I know plenty of doc makers who work in reality tv, which pays the bills. There's no disgrace in having a day job.

jean dodge

My gear was stolen when i was forced to move to a bad neighborhood. My girlfriend broke up with me when weddings and birth videos were not enough to get us out of forclosure crisis reliably. I have 25 years experience as a cinematographer, WGAw writer and indie director/producer. I live in my airstream now and I'm living on student loans and charity while scrambling for work that pays less than I made in the 1980s. Yes, the market is glutted, but it's also the lack of government support for the arts that simply typifies the USA's continued slide in crass oligarchy. It's not class warfare when one side can barely fight back. But like Nick says it was never about the money for me. It's just that my beater car doesn't run on dreams, and I can't feed children on integrity.


In a perfect world that'd be a great sentiment, Nick, seriously. But when you have to pay the bills, mortgage, etc., not so much. There needs to be a balance between doing something because you need/love to, and being able to make a living doing it.


I have an answer. Create because you love it and because you feel that you have something you want to express. Making a career of your art is and should be secondary. Stop worrying about being renowned and making money and create because you have to. The best artists create because they need to express something inside of themselves, not because they need to be rewarded for it.

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